Top Records of 2014: 10-6

10. Afghan Wigs - Do To The Beast (Sub Pop) I'll be the first to admit that I was late to the party with the Afghan Wigs, missing out on Greg Dulli's soulful vocals and the dark subject matter that makes the band original until long after they broke up. So I was waiting with bated breath for new material. Like Mark Lanegan, Dulli is a masterful singer who knows how to shine in any given situation and adeptly takes control of the mood and the tone of any song he sings. Do To The Beast sounds fuller than the older records, relying on more instrumentation to give the record a punchy, full feel, but the band's gritty vibe remains intact. "Parked Outside" comes on strong and powerful, a ferocious salvo that takes your breath away. "Matamoros" contains electronics but they don't take away from Dulli's clever phrasing and expressive yowl, although the violins make the track feel even more seasick. "Algiers," the first single off the record takes advantage of Dulli's expressive vocals with basic acoustic backing. Overall, the album isn't as powerful as Congregation or Black Love, (Dulli and John Curley are the only original members at this point) but it recaptures the magic that the Afghan Whigs wielded throughout the '80s and '90s. An underappreciated band has another chance to shine.

9. John Fullbright - Songs (Blue Dirt) It's a cliche, but John Fullbright is a songwriter's songwriter, and he has never been more in his element than on the aptly titled, Songs. Fullbright knows how to turn a phrase, and he certainly knows how to tell a story. When John Moreland wrote "Nobody Gives A Damn About Songs Anymore," he might have been talking about Fullbright whose songs once were firmly entrenched in the Townes Van Zandt, Tom T. Hall fashion, especially on From The Ground Up, but have synthesized a great number of other influences on Songs. The songs are confessional and honest, littered with the detritus of life. They're outlaw songs for the new age -- the age where the outlaws are the common people who like a song they can identify with -- a simple, well-written song without too much production or fanfare. On "Write A Song," Fullbright sings in a clear, honest voice, "Write a song about the very song you sing / When your rhymes do not apply to anything / Write a song about a song." Fullbright is up to that task.

8. Otis Gibbs - Souvenirs of A Misspent Youth (Wanamaker) Another masterful songwriter, Gibbs delivers another winning effort with ease. He still tells stories about tired travelers looking for home or solace. His voice is weather worn, and he touches on social issues just like on his last album, Harder Than Hammered Hell. Gibbs fills his songs with great characters. In Cozmina, he sings "the oldest child of nine / her daddy died in a coal mine" and in "Ghosts Of Our Fathers," he tells the story of a former bare knuckle champion who was "almost blind / They say it happens when you get punched too many times." Gibbs attention to detail, as well as the sparse instrumentation provide a great showcase for his songs. Some songs have an outlaw country feel, while others hang close to traditional folk. Just like the last record, this songs are perfect mixtape material. Put the "Darker Side Of Me" next to "Christ Number Three" in your next Milwaukee song mix or drink another PBR while listening to Mr. Gibbs tell his tales.

7. Strand of Oaks - Heal (Dead Oceans) I've been a fan of Strand of Oaks since I saw them on some long forgotten show shortly after Leave Ruin came out, and it's nice to see Timothy Showalter finally getting some attention for his music. Heal is much more realized than those early records, but the sense of fun and nostalgia still permeates Showalter's vision. J. Mascis's guitar playing is instantly familiar on "Goshen '97" and slightly surprising, but fits well into the overall vibe of reminiscence. The album includes more electronics than the earlier ones as well. "Heal" is imminently danceable and pop even though its lyrics are closer to Casiotone for the Painfully Alone than Justin Timberlake: "I spent ten long years feeling so fucking bad / I know you cheated on me, but I cheated on myself."  At times, the album fits more smoothly into a classic rock mold, but with an emphasis on thoughtful lyrics and the creation of a mood. Heal isn't a party record, but it is certainly hopeful. Strand of Oaks has outdone themselves here. I'm looking forward to what comes next.

6. Cory Branan - The No-Hit Wonder (Bloodshot) Readers of this blog know how highly I rate Cory Branan as a great songwriter and all-around excellent live act. The album does little to change this opinion. Branan writes rocking country-tinged songs with a robust sense of humor and uncanny sense of timing. His baritone voice adds depth to his everyman tales of loss and wonder. His songs are happier on The No-Hit Wonder even when the characters are on the verge of failure ("The No-Hit Wonder," The Only You"). He revisits several songs that have long been live hits, such as "Sour Mash" and "Daddy Was A Skywriter," and that might be my one regret for the album. It could be longer with more new songs, but those who are unfamiliar with Branan will surely not be disappointed. New songs like "You Make Me" with its rollicking barroom feel and heartfelt love for a special missus and "Missing You Fierce" with its pop melodicism and the yearning for surely that same missus are contagious. The older tunes, particularly "Sour Mash" and its tale of boozing (the mash is a main character) make this a great set of songs. How can you go wrong with lyrics like these?: "When I go below the gloomy ground / You better buy the room a round / Of bittersweet and sour mash."


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